The mulberry bushes stretch far up a hill, and we eat all the berries, like a mama bear and two cubs storing sunshine for the long winter. The seeds crunch between our teeth like bones as juice drips from our chins and hands. We are sticky, and we like it.
“Mama,” my son says between swallows, “a group of bears is called a sloth.”
“Really?” I ask, shoving away my daughter’s hand as she steals berries from my bush.
“Yeah! And grizzlies eat 20,000 calories in a day. Is that a lot?”
“Almost as many calories as you,” I tease.
bear (n.) from Proto-Germanic *bero, literally “the brown (one).” The original name for bear was related to the proto-Indo-European root word rtko (see; arctic).
Finally, we make it to the top of the hill and collapse in the hot sun, lying together in a heap. I’m their pillow, of course, and their heads rest on my stomach, bobbing up and down as I breathe. I glance back at our swath of destruction but don’t feel any pang of guilt for the wild animals who needed those berries to get through the winter.
Everyone for themselves.
As a girl, I gorged on mulberries that grew in our yard, ruining so many dresses that my mother beat me. Every year she threatened to chop those bushes down, but once I woke in the night and spied her outside, plucking berry after berry, dripping juice on her nightdress that glowed white in the moonlight.
“Brown one” is one of the many ancient euphemisms for the mammal. In Welsh, the name for bear means “honey-pig”; in Lithuanian, “the licker.” In Russian, “honey eater.” The Finns used many euphemisms, including mesikämmen (“mead-paw”), kontio (“dweller of the land”), and lakkapoika (“cloudberry boy”).
I’m so tired. But, of course, my son has more bear facts. He’s as full of facts as my stomach is of berries.
“After bears mate, the boy bear goes away and doesn’t help with the cubs. Just like our daddy, right?”
“Mmm,” I murmur.
“Mama, mama,” he pokes at me until I pry my eyes open. “A grizzly’s bite force can crush a bowling ball! What’s a bite force?”
All these facts, this endless, selfish recitation of facts, with no regard for my interest. An electric current of annoyance spreads from my scalp down my arms. All I want is to drift mindlessly in the sunshine. Tomorrow I’ll drag myself to work in that cold basement office with a teeny window looking up to a parking lot. The only thing that will keep me warm is the cheap ass office coffee.
If I could afford to be irresponsible, I would have quit that job long ago. That’s what I would have done when I was younger and alone. Those were the days. I roamed the world, finding food and shelter only for myself, caring only about myself, destroying anyone who got in my way: My mother when she tried to stop me from leaving, the boss who wanted to promote his brother over me, my neighbor who didn’t like the way I looked at her fiancé, although him I should have let her keep. That was my mistake.
These euphemisms arose and eventually overtook the original name for bear, which means “the destroyer,” because of the hunter’s taboo on saying the true name of an animal out loud. Using the true name of a predator would invite its presence, much to the detriment of the hunters.
My stomach rumbles, but the berries are gone.
My son shifts his head off my stomach. “Mama, mama.” He pokes me again, but this time it’s easier to open my eyes. He’s right there, a few inches from my face. I smell sugar on his breath. “If they’re really hungry, bears will sometimes eat smaller bears,” he whispers.
My daughter sighs. “I wish I could eat more berries.”
“I wish I could eat you up!” I growl, jumping up. I chase them, swatting, until they can’t breathe for laughing. I catch the girl (the plumper one) and grasp her arm with my mouth, tasting sweat and juice. Confusion darkens her face as I increase the pressure of my teeth.
Everyone for themselves, right?